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Ludwig van BEETHOVEN (1770-1827)
Piano Sonata No. 14 in C-sharp minor, Op. 27, No. 2 "Moonlight" [13:38]
Piano Sonata No. 15 in D major, Op. 28 "Pastoral" [21:15]
Piano Sonata No. 16 in G major, Op. 31, No. 1 [24:01]
Artur Schnabel, piano
Recorded 10-11 April 1933 (Op. 27), 3 and 17 April 1933 (Op. 28), and 5-6 November 1935 (Op. 31) in EMI Abbey Road Studio No. 3, London. Transfers and remastering by Mark Obert-Thorn ADD
NAXOS 8.110759 [58:54]


Artur Schnabel was born in 1882 in Lipnik, a small village in Bohemia. After study with Theodore Leschetizky in Vienna, he left for Berlin in 1898 where he pursued a career as a soloist, chamber musician and composer. By the 1920s he had achieved the reputation as the leading authority on the sonatas of Beethoven, performed the complete cycle in series of concerts in several major cities. He also published a rather over-edited and idiosyncratic edition of all the scores, which is still in use today. Reluctantly, he went into the studios of HMV and put down all thirty-two of the sonatas as well as the five concerti on wax. They were sold in subscription, and covered 204 78rpm sides. Schnabel had always been leery of the microphone, and it was most likely for economic reasons that he finally agreed to enter the studio, as Europe at the time of these discs was in the throes of depression and the looming threat of Nazism hung overhead like a great cloud. That a record company would risk so extensive a project that covered a good deal of less than popular repertoire spoke to the pianistís standing at the time.

Modern digital recording technology has enabled musicians to create note-perfect recordings with the help of sophisticated studio editing techniques. This perfection is the standard that the buying public has come to expect, so much so, that the pressure on artists to recreate these false perfections on stage is sometimes overwhelming, often to detriment of spontaneity and inspiration in live performances. It is somewhat shocking then, to our ears attuned to digital cleanliness, to hear a legendary artist like Schnabel make a bit of a mess out of the last movement of Beethovenís Moonlight sonata. Does his blurring of passagework and frequent dropped notes detract from the quality of this performance? Well, yes and no.

A couple of things need to be kept in mind here. First, in the thirties, editing was in its infancy, if it existed at all. The most likely scenario would be for an entire movement (or the portion of which that could fit on the four and one-half minute side of a twelve-inch 78) to be played straight through. Given that the material to make recordings was scarce and expensive in the 1930s, only the most egregious of errors would be re-recorded. One might therefore get a somewhat sloppy performance of a piano sonata, but such were the expectations of the day.

In spite of this, there is much to praise in these performances. Where Artur Schnabel shone brightest was in his remarkable sense of the structure of a work, and his ability to make that structure crystal clear to even a first listener. His ability to choose the exact pace at which a movement should go, as made evident in the breathtaking andante of Op. 28, and his simple, no nonsense approach to the oft hackneyed and over-romanticized opening of Op. 27, No. 2, show this artist in his finest form. In faster movements, such as the Rondo of Op. 31, No. 1, we are carried along at a rollicking clip without ever being made breathless. Schnabelís virtuosity was always in service to the music and not for self-aggrandizement. And, lest my earlier comments about the Moonlight finale indicate otherwise, he was perfectly capable of carrying off some keyboard acrobatics with accuracy and precision. A careful listen to the above-mentioned Op. 31 Rondo will prove my point.

Mark Obert-Thorn, whose name is already well known in the field of historical restorations, has done an outstanding job here, managing to bring out the pianoís sound to the fullest, and reducing noise to the point of enjoyability without compromising the dynamic range of the music. Brian Thompson provides excellent program notes, taking the more interesting approach of putting the recordings themselves into historical context in addition to commenting on the music itself.

Recommended highly to lovers of historical recordings, and students of performance practice alike.

Kevin Sutton

See also review by Colin Clarke


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